Nikola Jokić Has Been the MVP All Along

Even before LeBron James and Joel Embiid went down with injuries, the Denver big man deserved the award.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

For many NBA fans, the race for MVP has gotten considerably less interesting in recent weeks.

First was Joel Embiid, a season-long frontrunner, who went down with a bone bruise three weeks ago. Then LeBron James, whose play had him firmly in the conversation for the honor, went down with a high-ankle sprain a few weeks ago that figures to keep him out of action through at least mid-April.

But honestly, all those injuries did was clarify what should have been obvious: Nikola Jokić has been the MVP all season.

Every person has different values they consider, so we can go through each lens to evaluate his case.

If you’re a narrative voter, you’re in luck. For years people have watched Jokić—not exactly the most prototypical-looking basketball star—and suggested he’d be even better if he got himself in better shape. Perhaps aided by the short offseason, Jokić has been in fantastic physical condition, not only logging the NBA’s second-most minutes but also shooting 61.2% overall and 48.6% from three in fourth quarters—a stage in the game where he’d struggled with his long-range jumper the past three seasons, possibly due to fatigue.

Nuggets center Nikola Jokić on the court

Quite honestly, Denver didn’t have time for Jokić to play himself into shape this season. The Nuggets were a bit of a mess the first 15 games of the season. Michael Porter Jr. missed 10 of those contests due to the league’s health and safety protocols, while a banged-up Jamal Murray shot a pedestrian 44% overall and 33% from three over that span. Will Barton looked like a different, lesser player after missing the club’s run in the Orlando bubble. And while Jerami Grant was putting up star performances in Detroit, the Nuggets sorely missed him and wing Torrey Craig on defense, where they ranked 25th through Jan. 22.

“I locked him in my office one day, and I beat him with a pillowcase full of soda cans and said, ‘You gotta score more,’ ” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of his star.

In turn, Jokić has done a bit more of everything: scoring and assisting at career-high levels while shooting and passing more—and more efficiently—than he ever has before. When the other Nuggets struggled early on, the big man kept them afloat, at 7–7, by averaging a triple double through those first 14 games.

Since then Denver has won two-thirds of its games and sits at 29–18. Jokić is averaging 26.9 points, 11.1 boards and 8.5 rebounds per game on 57.1% shooting from the floor and 42.8% from deep. Not bad for a slow-footed NBA center, a position that hasn’t claimed the Most Valuable Player since 2000, when Shaquille O’Neal won it. And not bad considering that Denver plays at the league’s second-slowest pace, leaving fewer possessions for Jokić to pad his numbers.

If advanced numbers and analytics are more your speed, you probably don’t even need to be talked into Jokić for MVP. He owns 10.7 win shares, 3.4 more than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert, who are tied for second in the NBA. It’s the widest win-share margin the league NBA has seen since 2015–16—the year that Warriors star Stephen Curry, who finished the season ahead by 3.4 win shares, became the league’s first unanimous MVP. (Just in case you’re wondering if that’s due solely to the time Embiid and James have missed, it’s not. He holds the edge over Embiid and James—and the rest of the NBA—in win shares per 48 minutes, too.)

More historical context: Jokić’s season currently ranks as one of the six best of all-time—trailing only LeBron’s 2008–09 season, a trio of Michael Jordan campaigns and Curry’s unanimous MVP year—in box plus-minus, which measures a player’s box-score contributions to his team while on the court. While that might seem preposterous on its face, it may not be as far off as you think when looking at everything Jokić excels at within the context of his team, which … he leads in nearly every conceivable statistic.

At a minimum if you don’t trust those numbers—and frankly, no one should trust them wholeheartedly without watching—you should just observe Jokić on the court. It doesn’t take long to see what makes him special. But his sequences are so unusual and devoid of athleticism, that they’re a lot like leftovers, in that they’re almost better the second and third time you come back to them. The one-handed, full-court-outlet passes. The water-polo-style dimes. The dead-eye, Sombor-Shuffle jumper that feels like a close cousin of Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway. The statuesque way he holds the ball for seconds at a time without dribbling.

“I’m patient because I cannot really run fast. That’s my only option,” Jokić told me last postseason.

It’s more than fair to question Jokić's defensive ability. He’s often hesitant to come up to the point of the screen. And even though he sits back tethered to the paint most of the time, he isn’t much of a deterrent at the basket, ranking 34th out of the league’s 37 bigs who defend at least five shots per game near the rim.

Denver’s offense scores 17.5 points more per 100 possessions with Jokić. Yet the club hemorrhages eight points per 100 possessions more on defense when he’s on the floor. Still, even in the area he struggles with, he provides utility. He’s notched 73 steals this year—four fewer than league-leader T.J. McConnell. If the 6' 11" Jokić were to finish with the most, he’d be the first post player ever to do so. (At 6' 8", Scottie Pippen and Paul George are the tallest players to ever have the most steals.)

With Embiid and James sidelined, it feels as if there’s a drumbeat to find somebody—anybodyto spice things up and challenge the Denver center for the award as we head into the final third of the season.

But making a case for anyone else over Jokić feels like a stretch.

Want to reward a Jazz player for Utah’s season? Fine. But Jokić went off for 35, 14 and nine against Gobert the first time, then blitzed the two-time Defensive Player of the Year for 47, 12 and five in the second meeting. Donovan Mitchell? Maybe. But he had a rough start to the year and his stats aren’t that different from last season.

As Michael Pina pointed out yesterday, Kawhi Leonard is enjoying the most efficient year of his career, even if his counting statistics are about the same as before. But so is Paul George, which suggests that Jokić's play as a lone All-Star is more integral to Denver than Leonard’s is to the Clips. The same could be said of James Harden, who has led Brooklyn to 18 wins in his last 20 games and been sensational without Kevin Durant. But Kyrie Irving, enjoying the best looks of his life, is also shooting above 50%, something he’s never done before. Simply put, we expect that superstars will shoot and perform better when alongside other superstars.

The narrative is strong for someone like Damian Lillard, who’s had to play much of the season without his best offensive teammates, in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić. But perhaps because of their absences, Lillard’s numbers are about the same, if not worse, than last season, when he finished eighth in voting. (Curry’s case, also hurt with the absence of a key teammate, is tough to consider with Golden State simply fighting to reach the postseason.) And while there’s an intriguing case to be made for two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo—my colleague, Chris Mannix, laid it out Tuesday—he got off to a slow start with a new point guard and an overhauled offense. More challenging than that, though, even as his numbers have held static, is the fact that the Bucks aren’t running away with the NBA’s best record. Without that it becomes more difficult to point to Antetokounmpo as the frontrunner when another star is having an ascendant season that looks and is fundamentally better than what he’s had the past few years.

And even before Embiid and James went down, there was a strong case for Jokić. Embiid, undeniably a dominant player on both ends, and one Philadelphia fights tooth and nail to protect given his fragility, had already missed 18.4% of the Sixers games before his injury. (For context, Bill Walton is the only player to win the award after missing more than 15% of his team’s games in a year, according to Stats Perform.)

Meanwhile James was logging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.0 assists on 55% shooting in his 12 games since Anthony Davis’s injury, leading the Lakers to a 7–5 mark in that window. He was playing some of the best, most consistent defense we’d seen from him in years. But based on their play with James and no Davis (5–1 against teams currently outside the playoffs, but 2–4 against ones who’d make them if the season ended today), it’s unclear whether he could’ve kept them from falling beneath .500 in those games with one of the NBA’s most challenging schedules ahead.

But hypotheticals involving Embiid and James are now just that: hypothetical. Talk of the other hopefuls sort of feels that way, too, even as some are almost channel-surfing to find an alternate MVP option.

Sometimes, though, there is no horse race to be had. Short of a Jokić injury, he likely has this in the bag. And given how fun and dominant he’s been to watch since Day 1 of the season, that’s perfectly O.K.


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